Why are some people very aloof and unattached in their relationships, while others are clingy and need constant validation? According to attachment theory, it’s because different people have different attachment styles. Here’s everything you need to know about the four attachment styles, how they’re formed in childhood, and how to develop a secure attachment style.
What is an attachment style?
A person’s attachment style is their specific way of relating to others in relationships. According to attachment theory, first developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth and psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s, attachment style is shaped and developed in early childhood in response to our relationships with our earliest caregivers. Essentially, our adult attachment style is thought to mirror the dynamics we had with our caregivers as infants and children.
Attachment style includes the way we respond emotionally to others as well as our behaviors and interactions with them, says therapist Alyssa “Lia” Mancao, LCSW.
There are four main adult attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. (The latter three are all considered forms of insecure attachment.)
The four attachment styles:
1. Secure attachment
Secure attachment style refers to the ability to form secure, loving relationships with others. A securely attached person can trust others and be trusted, love and accept love, and get close to others with relative ease. They’re not afraid of intimacy, nor do they feel panicked when their partners need time or space away from them. They’re able to depend on others without becoming totally dependent.
About 56% of adults have a secure attachment type, according to foundational attachment research by social psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver in the 1980s.
All other attachment styles that are not secure are known as insecure attachment styles.
2. Anxious attachment
Anxious attachment style is a form of insecure attachment style marked by a deep fear of abandonment. Anxiously attached people tend to be very insecure about their relationships, often worrying that their partner will leave them and thus are always hungry for validation. Anxious attachment is associated with “neediness” or clingy behavior, such as getting very anxious when your partner doesn’t text back fast enough and constantly feeling like your partner doesn’t care enough about you.
Anxious attachment is also known as anxious-preoccupied attachment, and it generally aligns with the anxious-ambivalent attachment style or anxious-resistant attachment style observed among children. Some 19% of adults have the anxious attachment type, according to Hazan and Shaver’s research.
3. Avoidant attachment
Avoidant attachment style is a form of insecure attachment style marked by a fear of intimacy. People with avoidant attachment style tend to have trouble getting close to others or trusting others in relationships. They typically maintain some distance from their partners or are largely emotionally unavailable in their relationships, preferring to be independent and rely on themselves.
Avoidant attachment is also known as dismissive-avoidant attachment, and it generally aligns with the anxious-avoidant attachment style observed among children. Some 25% of adults have the avoidant attachment type, according to Hazan and Shaver.
4. Fearful-avoidant attachment
Fearful-avoidant attachment style is a combination of both the anxious and avoidant attachment styles. People with fearful-avoidant attachment both desperately crave affection and want to avoid it at all costs. They’re reluctant to develop a close romantic relationship, yet at the same time, they have a dire need to feel loved by others.
Fearful-avoidant attachment is also known as disorganized attachment, and it’s very rare and not well-researched. But we do know it’s associated with significant psychological and relational risks, including heightened sexual behavior, an increased risk for violence in their relationships, and difficulty regulating emotions in general.
How attachment styles are formed.
Attachment styles are developed in infancy based on our relationships with our earliest caregivers. Researchers believe attachment style is formed within our first year of being alive, between 7 to 11 months of age, mental health counselor Grace Suh, LMHC, LPC, tells mbg.
“Human beings are born helpless, so we are hardwired at birth to search for and attach to a reliable caregiver for protection,” Peter Lovenheim, author of The Attachment Effect, writes at mbg. “The quality of that first bond—loving and stable or inconsistent or even absent—actually shapes the developing brain, influencing us throughout life in how we deal with loss and how we behave in relationships.”
According to Mancao, attachment style is “determined by how the primary caregiver responds to the child’s cues when they are experiencing emotional stress.”
Here’s a quick primer on what circumstances lead to each of the four attachment types:
- Secure attachment: Caregivers are responsive and attuned to their child’s needs, says Mancao.
- Anxious attachment: “Caregivers are inconsistent, unpredictable with affections, sometimes overly involved, and intermittently withdrawn,” says Suh. It’s the unpredictable fluctuation between caregivers being emotionally available and then distant that leads children to be anxious about all their future relationships, Mancao adds.
- Avoidant attachment: Caregivers are not responsive but are dismissive and often distant, Suh explains. They’re consistently emotionally disconnected from their child, “resulting in the child believing that their needs won’t get met,” Mancao says.
- Fearful-avoidant attachment: “The type of an environment that influences a disorganized attachment involves a caregiver who is frightening or traumatizing, leading to the child to experience a deep sense of fear and a lack of trust in others despite wanting close connections,” Mancao says. They may be neglectful or even abusive, Suh adds, such that the child develops a “poor understanding of boundaries” and is “confused about what a healthy relationship looks like.”
Caregivers are not the only ones who shape your attachment style, however. (This is one of many things people get wrong about attachment styles.) People’s attachment styles may also be influenced by other significant relationships throughout their lives. “A person can have had a secure attachment during childhood, however, betrayals and infidelity in adulthood can lead to an insecure attachment,” says Mancao.
What is your attachment style?
There are many online quizzes you can take to identify your own attachment style. Here’s one attachment quiz based on the parameters studied in the scientific research, created by R. Chris Fraley, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Illinois who has researched attachment theory in depth.
In general, though, many people can read the descriptions of the four attachment styles and intuitively recognize themselves in one of them. Here’s a quick gut-check for you: Below are the descriptions of the main attachment types used in Hazan and Shaver’s foundational research on attachment theory. Read the statements and pick the one that most resonates with you:
- I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
- I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away.
- I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
Once you’ve picked the number you most resonate with, scroll back up to the earlier descriptions of each attachment style at the start of this article. The numbers here align with the numbers up there.
(Note: Fearful-avoidant attachment, the fourth attachment type, was not studied in Hazan and Shaver’s research and is not included above. It’s generally more rare. Fraley’s quiz linked above may tell you if you fall in this category. But in general, if you suspect you might have this attachment type, reach out to a mental health professional who can help you unpack these more chaotic tendencies and possible trauma in your past.)
Importantly, it’s also possible to have a different attachment style in different situations, according to Mancao.
“While we may have a primary attachment style, depending on our relationships, we may feel more secure with one person than we do with another,” she explains. “For many people, their attachment style is not the same in every relationship they encounter. Things that contribute to this are their counterpart’s (romantic or platonic) personality and feelings of safety.”
The history of attachment theory research.
Although often referenced as “Bowlby’s attachment theory,” attachment theory as we know it today was developed by several researchers over the course of the late 20th century. British psychoanalyst John Bowlby developed the concept of attachment behaviors around the 1950s. His theory was that children’s tendency to emotionally attach to their caregivers and to become distressed and seek them out in their absence was an adaptive evolutionary trait, something that allowed children to survive by clinging to an attachment figure who provided support, protection, and care when they were too young to care for themselves.
Mary Ainsworth, a psychologist and one of Bowlby’s colleagues, expanded on Bowlby’s original attachment theory by identifying individual differences in how infants handled separations from their parents. Her famous “strange situation” experiment in 1969 identified four attachment types among infants: secure, anxious-resistant, avoidant, and disorganized.
Later in the 1980s, social psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver began to apply Ainsworth and Bowlby’s attachment theory to adult romantic relationships, giving birth to the concept of the adult attachment styles we know today. In 1998, research psychologist Kelly Brennan and her colleagues further expanded on adult attachment, demonstrating two distinct dimensions that shape attachment patterns: attachment-related anxiety and attachment-related avoidance. People can be low in both, high in one and low in the other, or high in both, which determines their attachment style. (See above graphic.)
Today, there’s some criticism of attachment theory among psychologists who say it’s a stretch to believe caregivers can so dramatically shape infants’ personalities at such a young age. Indeed, thus far, studies attempting to draw a line between infant attachment patterns and their adult attachment styles have only found “small to moderate” correlations, according to Fraley himself. “Based on these kinds of studies, it seems likely that attachment styles in the child-parent domain and attachment styles in the romantic relationship domain are only moderately related at best,” Fraley writes in a University of Illinois article.
But the concept of attachment styles is enduring for a reason: It gives people language to describe the distinct ways they show up in their relationships, and it challenges them to look to their past experiences to help them understand why they are the way they are.
Mary Ainsworth and the strange situation.
In 1969 and subsequent years, psychologist Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues ran experiments known as The Strange Situation that identified and observed attachment behaviors in infants. Her team brought mothers and their infants into the lab and had them play in a room with toys on the floor and various other adults coming in and out of the room. At some point, the mothers would get up and leave the room without their child. After a while, they’d return. The researchers wanted to observe how children responded first to their caregiver leaving and later to their caregiver returning to them.
Here are some of the patterns they observed:
- Some children explored and played freely when their mother was in the room, became distressed when she left, and then were able to be soothed and comforted upon her return. These children were labeled as securely attached.
- Some children tended to avoid or ignore mothers even before she left and showed little emotion when left and when she returned. Ainsworth and her colleagues hypothesized that this avoidant behavior masked their true distress, and some further research tracking avoidant infants’ heart rates confirmed this theory. These children were labeled as anxious-avoidant.
- Some children were already a bit distressed before the mother left, showed significant distress when she did, and were hard to comfort when she returned. The researchers sometimes observed a desire to “punish” their mothers for leaving by continuing to act out despite being relieved that she’d returned. These children were labeled anxious-ambivalent or anxious-resistant.
- Finally, some children showed largely inconsistent behaviors, including general aimlessness throughout the experiment, fear of the caregiver, or even aggressiveness toward them. Sometimes they’d have these moments of out-of-place behaviors and then fall into one of the other categories, or they’d be a mix of several. These children were labeled as having disorganized attachment.
Can your attachment style change?
“Yes, it is possible for a person to change their attachment style,” Mancao says. “However, this takes a lot of work, patience, and intention if a person is shifting from an insecure to a secure attachment strategy.”
Here are a few ways to start:
1. Identify your relationship patterns.
Start by thinking about your relationship with your parents as a child, says Suh. She recommends asking yourself questions like:
- How were they toward you as a child?
- How did you respond to them?
- To whom did you go for comfort when you had a problem?
- Were they negligent or reliable?
This will help you get more clarity on what may have shaped your attachment style.
“Assess your current and past attachment style and identify if there are any patterns in choosing romantic partners,” Suh says. “Be aware of your childhood history; the familiarity is comforting, whether it was good or bad. Meaning, your past unhealthy relationship patterns from childhood can recreate in adulthood.”
2. Work on your self-esteem.
It’s a common characteristic across all insecure attachment styles, says Suh.
“Learn to embrace, value, love, and care for yourself first,” she recommends. “If you cannot fathom what self-love is because you were neglected, abused, and dismissed as a child, you can start with self-tolerance and self-neutrality. This can look like, ‘I’m a person, and everyone deserves to be valued’ instead of forcing yourself with empty words of, ‘I’m beautiful and valuable.'”
3. Get in touch with your real needs.
At the end of the day, all insecure attachment styles are people who tend to form insecure relationships because of deeply held fears that their relationships will not work out. So it’s important to figure out how to make yourself feel more secure in your relationships. Part of that involves being aware of what your needs and desires are in relationships.
“Learn to be assertive and set boundaries. Honor what you feel, and express your needs in words without manipulation and hidden meanings,” Suh says. “Securely attached people are often direct and appropriately confrontational to create a healthy and meaningful relationship.”
4. Don’t be afraid to seek therapy.
“Therapy is helpful, both individual and couples,” Suh says. “A quality therapist will help you to dive into your attachment style, past wounds, ways to identify, establish appropriate boundaries, and promote a healthy relationship.”